Olympia Snowe's Retirement Signals the Decline of the Moderate (Female) GOP Senator

Senator Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) decision not to run for re-election in November shocked a Maine electorate known for its political quirkiness. The Senator’s seemingly snap announcement and subsequent derision of her colleagues’ ideological intransigence on national television signals the death of the moderate GOP senator, a species that happens to be disproportionately female. 

Tempting though it may be to attribute Snowe’s departure to her realization that a GOP base bent on reversing women’s progress might turn against her this election cycle, this theory misses the mark. The Senator did not bow to political reality. She enjoyed popularity in her home state and likely would have sailed through to another term. 

Snowe, who created a political career as a moderate willing to reach across the aisle, found herself marooned on a GOP island where it was suddenly heresy to stray from the base. In an interview on MSNBC, the Senator told host Andrea Mitchell that it has become “very difficult to resolve major issues" and that she hoped to “give voice to the frustrations that ... exist with the political system ...  in Washington, where it's dysfunctional, and the political paralysis has overtaken the environment to the damaging of the good of the country." 

Snowe is leaving behind a Senate in which two of her four female GOP colleagues (L. Murkowski and S. Collins) are considered moderate. In a chamber with only 17 female senators in total, in which historically moderate senators Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch, and John McCain are veering right to save their seats (and where Arlen Specter is a newly-minted Democrat), half is a significant percentage.

So while Snowe’s departure may appear to signal reluctance in the GOP electorate to support a female candidate, the truth is that Snowe, Murkowski, and Collins just happen to be some of the few Republican moderates still standing.

Photo Credit: JRockefeller IV

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Danielle Schlanger

Graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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